To Nathan on His 9th Birthday

I remember so vividly the day you were born. I remember how you woke mom in the early hours of the morning (you always have been an early riser) and then took your time actually arriving. Even nine years on, I remember the long (17) hours’ wait, where the whole world seemed to be condensed into that tiny bedroom where mom lay. There are no words to describe the feeling of holding you for the first time – being aware in a way I never was before of the fragility and beauty of life.

Mom had been given a birth diary as a gift for her stork party, and we had been filling it in, so that we could record and remember every detail of the experience of bringing you into the world. One of the pages of that diary asked each of us to write you a message. It’s not as easy as you would think. How does a father ever even begin to know how to introduce his son to the carnival that is life? What can I possibly say that would make navigating life any easier? I had so much to say, and a page simply was not enough.  I decided that I would write here instead.

Writing these birthday posts every year is a strange experience. I know that I am writing to a future you, even as I must write to the current you. It will, I think, be a few years yet before you discover these, and before you can read them with proper understanding. But my hope is that when you do, they will give you memories to treasure and a source of hope and strength.

Life, after all, is hard. You remark on that often. And every time you do, my heart breaks. But – just like I was throughout most of my life (sorry! I passed on a bad habit to you) you hate talking about feelings and shut those conversations down before they get too serious. So I try, in these posts, to give the future you – whom I suspect will have the same struggles as the current you, because I am afraid that depression won’t simply disappear with age – some small encouragement in a form that you might find less threatening than a talk (although I am always willing, if you ever want to).

I want to share something with you, father to son, so that you know that as hard as life is, you are not alone in that struggle. I find life hard too. You say that sometimes you just feel like crying and you don’t know why. That happens to me too.  

Let me tell you how I understand the “why”. Simply put, you care. The world is not as it should be – it is neither just nor fair, and we are powerless to change that. That cannot be easy for somebody as sensitive and generous of spirit as you are to accept. Whenever we see a homeless person, you want to give. You are so aware of the suffering around you and its wrongness. The injustice of life is incomprehensible to adults, but must seem overwhelming for a beautiful young soul like yours. The thing about caring is that love, in any form, is accompanied inevitably by loss. They are inseparable. Caring always has a cost. Sometimes it is a physical loss – those we care about leave or reject us or pass on. More often the loss is substantially less tangible – as we love others and learn more about them, we have to lose the narratives we had framed about them, about the world and our relationship to it. Daring to care, to love, always comes with the necessity of reshaping how we see the world and that is a kind of loss too. And you care deeply.

I think these losses must be especially hard for you because your usual way of handling adversity will not work against life’s unfairness. One of your greatest strengths is that when you find yourself in a situation where your skills do not equip you to succeed in a situation, you sidestep the often long and painful process of acquiring the skills and instead shift the circumstances to suit you. I remember watching you playing with some other children and they were holding a race around a track. They were faster than you. You suggested that they have a race where everyone had to run as an old person. You may not be particularly athletic, but you have a natural affinity for acting that very few can match. You hunched over, and held you back and hobbled along. You had mimicked your grandfather perfectly. And nobody else’s performance even came close to yours. That courage and innovation– the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that lets you change circumstances to suit your skills rather than trying to compete in an environment to which you are ill-suited – will take you far in life.

But it cannot make the world an easier place to be. Injustice and unfairness are not so easily ignored. Still, if they are ever to be eradicated, it will be through people like you: people who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the cruel reality with which they are presented, and with the influence and vision to reshape it to fit themselves. An empathetic and kind person, like you, with that kind of attitude, could be a powerful force for change.

You have an outlook on life that is rare. Most will simply accept the rules and play by them. Not you. I am so proud of you for that (even if I don’t communicate that enough)– you will make life work for you. But others will not always understand that, and I think it is the kind of outlook that could leave you feeling very lonely and misunderstood. So I can understand why sometimes you feel like crying and you don’t know why. I feel like that sometimes too.

Here is the part where I offer some fatherly advice on how I have learnt to manage such feelings so that they do not become completely overwhelming. You see, as long as I can remember, I have felt sad too. And lonely. And misunderstood. I was a socially awkward child who battled to connect to other children. When I was your age, I had invented two invisible friends. One was a kangaroo called Joey and the other was a small maltese poodle, a flurry of fur and teeth, called Bitey. Looking back, I can see how they were my mind’s way of protecting me from the cruelty of other children, and of life in general. In my mind, I could retreat into a pouch or unleash my fury, as the situation demanded. I invented companions who could do the things I had not yet developed the skills or confidence to do myself. But they were skills I learned, and one day – no longer needed – Joey and Bitey just disappeared (interesting question: can invisible non-entities disappear?!).

There are two important lessons to master in terms of coping with those feelings of loneliness and despair and inadequacy, in my experience.  First, know that you are special, and the feelings that tell you otherwise cannot be trusted. I was almost 30 before I learnt that one, and it was life-changing when I did. We become the stories we tell ourselves. The moment you realise that, you can start to write the story of yourself as you want it to be, instead of participating in the narratives that others have prepared for you. One day I sat down and I wrote down all the things I wanted to be. Some of the definitions have changed a bit over the years, as I have reviewed and updated it, but it has been more or less constant for 20 years now. Currently it looks like this:

Personal Mission Statement and Core Values

My mission is to serve the world by offering a positive mimetic model who, like Jesus, rejects violent ways of relating (in whatever form that violence may take) and pursues reconciliation and peace.

In Pursuing this mission, I will adhere to the following core values:

Christlikeness: In all things, I will seek to be like Jesus, who rejected violent ways of relating, and modeled a way of enemy love, forgiveness and peace-making.

Integrity: I will try to keep the gap between what I say and what I do as small as possible. My values will never be concepts only, but I will practise them.

Leadership: I will ensure that the vision by which I lead others is Godly and true, and aimed at healing and reconciliation. I will not ask people to go where I am not prepared to walk. Leadership means equipping others to lead.

Service: I will never be too proud to serve others. I do not exist only for myself. I realise that when my community prospers, I prosper.

Courage: I will do necessary things even if they are hard or scary. I will have the courage to listen to and respect others, even when I disagree, and the strength to speak my opinions, even when they are not popular.

Wisdom: I will try not to let my own prejudices, habits, and blindspots compromise my seeking after truth. I will not cling to, nor defend that which is demonstrably unwise, but I will actively pursue truth, acknowledging that truths worth knowing are not easily found nor comprehended.

When you are able to, I encourage you to do this exercise for yourself. What it has meant for me is that I no longer judge myself (often too harshly) by other people’s standards and expectations. Instead, these self-determined principles have become the standard by which I measure my performance, and if others don’t like those standards, tough. I have found it easier to live with my decisions this way. I no longer feel the need to be perfect or to please others. It also means that when I do things that are in line with my vision, I can recognise the positive aspects of my decisions and I get a much more balanced commentary than the critical voices in my head  (which I know you hear too) provide.

Which leads me to the second important lesson. When my actions fall short of my standards, I forgive myself. I try to understand why and I aim to do better. Sometimes that is easy and sometimes that takes years. And when others fall short of my standards, I forgive them too. I remind myself that they have not chosen to live by my standards – they have their own. I remind myself that, even when I do not understand their choices, other people will choose – consciously or not – the standards they feel will help them live the best way they are capable of, and I forgive them when those decisions hurt me. The older I get, the more convinced I have become that forgiveness is the key to being at peace with oneself and the world.

And so, my darling boy, as we celebrate you – who you are and who you are becoming – I want you to know what a privilege it is to be your father. I genuinely believe that you have the character and outlook to achieve great things. But I also believe that greatness is not really about achievements. Those are more an occasional side-effect of greatness. Greatness starts with who you are, and you, my boy, have greatness in bucketloads. My prayer is that you will one day take a conscious decision to choose who it is you want to be, to pursue that vision with courage and tenacity, and to forgive yourself when you fail. I wish for you a long and happy life, and suggest to you that the path to peace lies in shaping the world rather than passively letting it shape you, and in forgiving yourself and others when the world-shapes you and they make don’t come out quite right.

But that day is in the future. Today, let’s be nine and eat cake and pop balloons and sing and laugh and play. Whatever comes after that, we will face together. I love you more than I can say. Happy birthday, Nathan.

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